Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Smurfectly Smurfect News

NBM just recently announced a licence that I’d long been expecting - The Smurfs are finally coming back in English form. I made a few comments of appreciation of my own at the following site here.

As Dorian noted, “The Smurfs is coming out on DVD, but the original comics are still not available in English. This disappoints me.” Well, it took three years, but it looks like they’ll finally be able to reach another generation of readers again.

The only fault is that for (maybe) obvious reasons, the first book, The Black Smurf will be renamed (and recoloured) as The Purple Smurf. Probably to aim for the nostalgic fans of the cartoon which also featured Purple Smurfs, but more likely to appease any angry criticism from certain circles.

At least they’ll be releasing multiple stories per book, which makes me a happy customer. The earlier version, released by Random House only put out ONE story per book, which led to some rather uneven page counts, since they were essentially chopping the European versions in half. (Strangely enough, the French versions of Calvin & Hobbes were cut in half as well, so it’s not just a localization thing)

I was never able to read the Black Smurf in english. I even read the origin comic, The Magic Flute staring Peyo’s other creations, Johan and Pirlouit. The only Smurf titles I recall reading in English were:

King Smurf - While Papa Smurf is away, the remaining Smurfs develop a Monarchy in his absence... with disastrous results.
The Flying Smurf - A Smurf has dreams of flying, and is determined to find a way to do so, even if he has to annoy every Smurf he steals... borrows tools from.
The Fake Smurf - Gargamel turns himself into a Smurf to find the elusive village, despite not knowing where the village is, let alone what kind of Smurf name he’s supposed to be. (Fakey Smurf would be too obvious)
AstroSmurf - A Smurf has aspirations to go to space, and when demoralized at his inability to do so, the other Smurfs devise an elaborate deception plan to make him feel better.
The Smurfette - probably the most successful of Gargamel’s plans to destroy the Smurfs, by implanting a female element into the fray. Of course, his interpretation of Smurf beauty is pretty far off the mark, and the trouble only really begins when Papa Smurf gives the Smurfette plastic surgery to stop the rest of the village from picking on her.
The Smurfs & the Howlibird - a Magic Potion gone horribly wrong is disposed of improperly, causing a horrific mutation on an innocent baby chick who is somehow able to reverse-engineer the origin of said potion that made him a monster.
Smurf Versus Smurf (Smurf Green & Green Smurf) [also known as Smurf of one and Smurf a Dozen of the Other] - a parody of the use of the Smurf language. Is probably more identifiable by Quebeckers in their never-ending English/French debate.
Smurphony in C - Harmony Smurf unwittingly makes a deal with Gargamel to make actual music that will swoon his fellow Smurfs over... literally.
The Egg & the Smurfs - The Smurfs find an egg that, upon tapping it, grants any wish they want. Hopefully, Papercutz won’t have much of a problem when one of the Smurfs wishes another Smurf to hell. (Yes, this actually happened - the offending Smurf made the cardinal sin of standing in line too long to make his wish)

Hopefully, they won't forget the one-page joke where Jokey Smurf painted himself up as a Black Smurf as a foolish prank, scaring the bejezus out of everyone, until Brainy Smurf (in a surprisingly useful role) reminds them to find the antidote. At which point, Jokey Smurf goes from Gnap!-ing mode to sticking his tongue out with his thumbs in his ears and walks away laughing... only to hear Painter Smurf ask what happened to his indelible black paint.

Of course, it’s understandable why they would change the colour of the Smurfs. Just look at Tintin in the Congo to understand the kind of controversy it generated. Yet, I grew up reading that story, and never encountered any kind of racist thoughts. I’d argue that reading these kind of stories make us more open to black people, not less. After all, white humans get caricatured in every possible permutation in the comics page - why shouldn’t black people have just as many twisted features? I say keep experimenting with as many possible interpretations and find one that works.

When I see this kind of news, I'm reminded of the portrayal of the Oompa-Loompas from Roald Dahl's Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. Of all their portrayals of the little men, it's my first rendition that's stayed with me the strongest:

I've included the above text to allay any potential fears that this might be a very well drawn hoax done in Joseph Schindelman's scratchy penwork. Besides, I have no art or photoshop skills at all.

When I saw the Oompa Loomas portrayed as Black pygmies, I was struck at how honest it seemed. Their origins of where they came from suddenly made more sense. Yet I was dismayed at how hard it was to find other books that had these black people. It took me years until I was able to find an old copy in a library that assured me that I hadn’t made it up in my mind. (These are copies of photocopies, so any bad resolution isn’t my fault)

Of course, having little black men working for free for a white man who imported them overseas and singing and dancing in praise of him could be taken the wrong way.

A large contributing factor might’ve been that they were regularly used as guinea pigs for Wonka’s outlandish experiments. And some of them could be potentially fatal. There’s a minefield for you.

These are all the pages of the Black Oompa-Loompa's I've been able to find. (which is more than I got from this site that explained the origins of the Black Oompa-Loompas) I'm sorry to say that I haven't had much success with the sequel, The Great Glass Elevator. To get an idea of how potentially explosive the Ommpa Loompas were, there were only three pages of drawn Oompa-Loompas, even though they were regulated to a greek chorus.

For completeness’ sake, I’ve included the picture of them rowing the boat, even though you can barely see the Ommpa-Loompa’s heads. There might not be a difference there, but I didn’t want to take the chance.

Still, if the modified portrayal of the Smurfs will lead to them becoming a Triumvirate with Asterix & Tintin, I won't complain. I just hope the translation will be on par with the earlier releases.

Friday, April 23, 2010

YTV Commercial Comics

On October 21, 1989, inside the comics page, there were some interesting advertising. There had always been brief comic advertisements inside the pages of the Gazette Comics, but these were a little different:

These chronicled the adventures of Jade, and Mr. (Dash) Pike who were chasing the nefarious Mr. Devlin through several TV shows. Mr. Devlin had committed the eeeevil deed of stealing Dash's TV times, without which, he would have to sit around all day for his favorite shows to show up. Horrors! The fiend! Could this plot to demolish (uh, encourage?) lethargic activity be stopped?

It was the first time I'd seen sequential advertising, and I looked forward to the next instalment. This was quite an acomplishment since many of the shows they were talking about were completely new to me, since I didn't have cable. I was perfectly fine with getting my TV shows from the TV antenna alone. Even if it meant having to rotate it to get perfect reception, and God forbid there should be weather conditions. At the time, I didn't see the need to sign up for multiple shows, when only a handful would be worth watching.

It was a different time, Okay?!

Now, of course, I'm a little curious as to what some of these shows were like. I never saw Count Duckula or Danger Mouse, but from what little I saw of them, they seemed like interesting cartoons I might've had nostalgic memories of. I was always more attracted to the animated stuff than the live-action stuff, and was always mystified as to why my classmates prefered the latter. (The exception being Pee-Wee's Playhouse, which I watched to get an idea of what the appeal there was. If there was ever a show that differed from other sitcoms, Pee-Wee took the cake)

Of all the shows mentioned, only TMNT rang familiar bells. Of course, the turtles were popular enough that they were able to air on regular TV & Cable without having to pay devotion to either. This was one of the reasons I didn't see the big deal in getting Cable, if some shows would show up on TV later. That, and the premise for the next show didn't seem that promising to me:

With the adventure concluding with Mr. Devlin trapped on You Can't Do That on Television for all eternity, it seemed like a good high note to end off on.

But not long after, the adventures resumed in the next TV season, on Feburary 10, 1990.

Unfortunately, I lost the episode where they invaded the set of Rocky & Bullwinkle. I would've liked to see what they did with the fast-paced show, and how they tried to sabotage it. If anybody out there has it, it's in the elusive March 3rd 1990 paper. (March 4th if your papers only showed Sundays on Sundays) Fortunately, you can still enjoy the rest of the story without prior knowledge.

So being trapped inside a bad TV show wasn't punishable enough, Mr. Devlin had to be forced into a McDonald's job for all eternity. And despite the question of The End?, there never was any further follow-ups. I guess YTV got their money's worth and figured they'd get more bang for their bucks by advertising on TV, their major circuit.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Classic" Comic Strip Reprints

Sinful admission time: I am glad they are being produced, but I generally don’t care about classic comic strip reprints. Like… at all. I’ve even been told (repeatedly) that I would really like a couple of them, but I have no enthusiasm for them at all. I promise one day to at least commit to reading a whole tome of unfunny 70 year old ‘gags’ just out of spite. But that day is not today.

Retailer Chris Sims made this comment on his site while liveblogging the latest Previews comic catalogue. I can understand his reluctance to get into any of the “classic” comic strips.

If you asked the average person on the street what their favorite Calvin & Hobbes strip was, you’d get any possible answer ranging from Spaceman Spiff to the Cardboard Box. Same with For Better or For Worse (the first 20 years when it was good) The Far Side, Herman, Fox Trot, Bloom County, and any strip with a continuing storyline. This also holds true for the major franchise holders, Garfield & Peanuts. Despite years of mediocrity, there were some truly creative spikes through their early years.

Now, if you asked these same people what their favorite Hagar the Horrible or Family Circus strip was, you’d be left with a blank stare. The majority of driftwood comic strips are such that they’re utterly indistinguishable from each other. Mort Walker said that the sole purpose of a cartoonist is to make his audience laugh. That may work as a short-term formula, but as a result, nothing memorable is ever really shown.

If all you’re concerned about is making small jokes on a day-to-day basis, that doesn’t allow you the freedom to think about longer stories with the same characters. Can anyone remember a continuing storyline in Dennis the Menace?

It’s why so many cartoonists were utterly baffled with Bill Watterson’s assertion that he held comics to a higher standard than everyone else. For them, comics were simply a simple tool to make money. But Watterson went above and beyond their perceptions to create the kind of comics that would stand the test of time. (Even though a lot of them were improvised rips of Peanuts comics) It was the equivalent of a literary writer bringing respect to the much-maligned trashy pulp novels. The closest comparision would be H.P. Lovecraft who created existential horror stories in Science Fiction Magazines, where everybody else was just writing gangster/cowboy stories... IN SPACE! (Yes, I just compared Bill Watterson to Lovecraft)

I’d be more impressed with IDW’s output if they put out more Sunday Comic collections, since cartoonists tended to give more attention to those than the dailies, which are simply too short to retain any kind of information. Of course, they may have to get some supporting funds first before getting the resources necessary to pare through the backlogs of old newspapers to get the truely worthy strips.

I’d really like to see a collection of Broom Hilda’s Sunday comics. Part of the problem with collecting vintage strips may be that their creators are still alive. As a result, they keep adding to their output even though they’re still past their prime. It’s why I was so surprised to see a large collection of Gary Trudeau’s Doonsbury coming up, since he has no intent of retiring anytime soon.

Newspaper comics and Webcomics exist in a weird kind of conundrum from each other. Newspaper comics are labeled with the expectation that they should be safe for children to read, and overprotective parents get extremely upset if they see something in the comics page that doesn’t fit their preconceived notions. Not to mention cartoonists are forever dismayed at what they’re not allowed to show on their limited space of the comics page.

Webcomics have more freedom, but may suffer for completely different reasons. No editorial freedom can mean just as many spelling mistakes. Humour-based storylines can quickly become too serious and ruin the mood if they’re not well-planned. Sporadic updates can mean the work has as much chance of losing an audience as it does at gaining one.

Webcomics are more varied in subject material, and can choose any theme material that Newspaper comics are afraid to touch. There was a time when stories about Sci-fi Travel, Jungle Adventures and Soap Operas were acceptable Newspaper comic stories. Now those have been all glossed over for family-friendly Nuclear family stories. Of course, most Webcomics like to focus on things such as Comics, Computers, and Video Games, so they run the risk of restricting themselves into a niche ghetto as well.

On one end of the spectrum, you’ve got jokes that only the most tech-fably will get. On the other, you’ve got rusty archaic jokes that only people in their retirement years will get. Newspaper comics seem to be forever aimed at the mindset of people who survived the Great Depression. Many of the jokes make references that may completely fly over the heads of today’s children. Mucilage anyone? Your mucilage may vary.

Parents may want to protect their children from the harsh realities of the world, but children are naturally curious, and tend to be on the lookout for anything particularly risque. It’s funny to think that a generation ago, parents were bemoaning about the lack of morality shown on television.

The more things change...

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Le Grande Chef Pierre

One of the sad realities of the Newspaper comic strip is that for every successful strip out there, there are dozens of strips that fail to find an audience. The demise of a strip can depend on several factors: Whether it could find an audience based on it's theme; if the jokes are funny enough; if the characters are drawn well; and most importantly, if the audience likes reading it.

The cancelation of Le Grande Chef Pierre by Brian Fray was one of these. A Canadian cartoonist who used his titular character for cooking mishaps. Until I searched for his name online, I was unaware he had used his character in single-panel comics called Chef's Corner.

One of the things I found remarkable about this Sunday comic was that it used the throwaway panel to summarize the entire strip, long before Broom Hilda used it later. (Garfield doesn't really count, since the throwaway panels in the fat cat strip aren't connected to the joke. They're really just exercises in design.)

The cast is made up of three characters, Chef Pierre, the waitress Lola, and the head waiter Basil. If I hadn't seen his name spoken here, I never would've known what it was.

A hallmark of a good strip is how timeless a joke is long after the publication date. The above strip still (unfortunately) rings true today.

One thing that I didn't register for years was that the titular character, Chef Pierre, never says a word. Even in the first strip posted here, it's just cooking instructions in cursive narrative. I always enjoyed that kind of unreliable narrative, where you have to struggle with what's being said versus what's actually happening.

I may post the rest of my collection if I get the chance, but this seems like a good point to stop off at.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

You don't say

Something that I was thinking of when I composed the last post about the Muppets - growing up, the only entry to their world was through Sesame Street, the Sunday comics, and of course, Muppet Babies. I was limited to those since I had no real interest in watching the Muppet Show, and their movies weren’t captioned.

Being deaf, I had no clue what they were saying, but figured that because of the high production values of Muppet Babies, they were always saying were endlessly witty quotes onscreen. Even though I had no idea what the characters were saying, that still didn’t stop me from imagining what possible quirky quotes they might be saying. Unfortunately, when I actually did see the Muppet movies with subtitles, I was extremely disappointed at how lackluster the dialogue was compared to the other versions I’d seen. It couldn’t possibly match up with my preconceived notions of what I thought they were saying.

It’s why I’ve always been deathly afraid of watching the captioned version of Sailor Moon. Even before I knew that they’d watered down the script and deleted some scenes (though they were easy to catch if you paid attention, and the foreign versions of the show showed them in full) Whatever the script was couldn’t possibly be as imaginative as what I thought the characters were saying. I avoided it simply because I didn’t want my illusions shattered.

With the opening of the Scooby-Doo, I simply implanted various spooky noises in tandem with the characters movement and the overall theme. For years I was convinced that my interpretation was the authentic version. Now that I know what the actual lyrics actually are, I’m even more disappointed to know the truth.

Sailor Moon wasn’t the only Anime I watched without knowing a single thing that was going on. Many cartoons were designed so that even if you couldn’t understand a word being said, you could at least follow the story by the action alone. One of the strangest Animes I saw on a foreign channel was an educational show about a miniature alien who had pink hair for hands, called Ordy.

That's certainly an unusual character design, unlikely to be copied elsewhere. One of the multi-parters was when Ordy confronted a conflicted boy who seemed to be doing some dishonest stuff with a computer. And when the was boy felt like he was backed into a corner, he trapped Ordy into the pixelated realm of the computer.

Even before I knew about Anime, I could still get the sense that Japanese Animation was different from American Animation. Unlike limited American Animation where the characters (such as Hanna-Barbara) got away with simple talking by nodding the head at random intervals, Anime characters just moved their mouth without moving their heads. Yet I always found that more appealing.

Another Anime I occasionally watched was the Anime version of The Wizard of Oz. Just looking at a single episode was enough to see that it was remarkably different from the movie version. In one episode, the Tin Man was grappling with a beast in water until he rusted up and couldn't move. Then the scene shifted to the munchikins in a mine talking about the jewelry there. All Dorthy could do was watch the Tin Man be helpless beside the beast while she was riding a Grifon. I think the entire series is available on DVD, though I haven't managed the courage to risk buying it.

However, there’s a flip side to not knowing what’s actually being said. One of my favorite commercials in my youth, for the Candy bar Whatchamacallit, embodies this belief. For years, I always just assembled various sounds to the multiple images associated with the chocolate. It never occurred to me that there were actual lyrics in time to the music.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the actual verses vastly outperformed what I thought was the musical theme. Even though I now know what the actual lyrics are, I still think of the sounds I remember back then.

It’s part of why I so much appreciate European comics more than American comics. You can just look at the pictures and easily follow what’s going on. The difference is that, unlike Manga, the dialogue is much wittier than anything I could possibly conceive the characters of saying.

Part of what made Manga so impenetrable to American audiences for years was that so much of what was translated was adult in nature. It was only when they started bringing over Children's Mangas that they started to gain a serious foothold that has yet to let go. That's the basic corporation formula that American comics have long forgotten - attract the children first, and they'll follow you down to the pits of hell.

A few of those are only just recently being translated by Cinebook. Various titles include: Iznogoud, written by the same author of Asterix. Thorgal, the Viking whose adventures I prefer to Conan. Melusine, the 100-year young witch. Lucky Luke, the gunslinger faster than his shadow. Papyrus, Yoko Tsuneko, Yakari and other titles I don’t know are also good reads.

Unfortunately, due to lack of publicity, and an atrocious animation system, very few of those comics will ever likely be as well-known over here as they are in their home countries. Not to mention that, personally, I feel that some of these books would work better as omnibuses, especially since 48 pages for $10 doesn’t feel like much, even if those pages are jam-packed with details.

I’ve long thought that if there was a scanlation site that had 1% of the energy that most Manga scanlations have, we would have more access to European stuff other than Asterix or Tintin. (In fact, a Manga site once did scanlate a series, Lanfeust of Troy, but they quickly dropped it once they changed servers) If I had more knowledge of French, and the knowledge & patience to scan & translate BDs from the library, I could've made a serious contribution to the comics world.

I especially enjoy these translations on Scans-Daily, and am sorry that there aren’t more. There’s literally tons of untranslated stuff over there that’s in desperate need of wider recognization.